Behind the coverage of David Seymour’s rise in the polls and Maori Language Week lurk inconvenient truths. Graham Adams argues journalists need to be more even-handed to maintain their credibility.
IN THE HULLABALOO that followed Curia’s poll results last week, the media focused mainly on the startling fact that National’s support had collapsed to 21.3 per cent — with all its dire implications for Judith Collins continuing as the party’s leader.
Predictably, the dismal figures spawned a flurry of articles predicting a palace coup — with the rider that the mutiny could not be immediate because Level 4 lockdown prevented the party’s Auckland MPs flying to Wellington en masse to disembowel their leader in person. A coup conducted over Zoom would have been unseemly and presumably unsatisfying to those consumed with blood lust.
The fact that Act reached its highest number in any poll — at 14.9 per cent — was also widely covered, partly because it was seen as a fresh humiliation for Collins, with the party described as “hot on National’s heels”.
While the media was keen to dissect the causes for Collins’ poor showing, however, it didn’t seem nearly as interested in analysing possible reasons for David Seymour’s ascension — including the role played by his tweet revealing the confidential code prioritising access to vaccinations for Māori.
Seymour posted the tweet at 9.49am on September 6. The poll of 1000 respondents was conducted between September 5 and September 9, with the median responses on September 7.
In short, nearly all the polling occurred in the days immediately after Seymour’s message appeared, which also saw his defence of his actions published prominently in the NZ Herald on September 8.
It is clear that despite the widespread condemnation he received in the media — ranging from the Māori Party describing the tweet as a “lowlife move” to the extraordinary response of Newshub’s political editor, Tova O’Brien, calling him a “cockwomble” — his popularity hit new highs.
Perhaps journalists didn’t connect the inflammatory tweet and the firestorm that followed with the poll result. Or perhaps it was simply unpalatable for them to admit their enthusiastic lashing of Seymour may have helped boost his popularity. Or, worse, the unthinkable idea that voicing objections to race-based policies — even in a pandemic — might be a vote-winner that no amount of vitriol could counter.
A similar unwillingness to present inconvenient facts was evident in regard to the results of another poll by Curia released the very same week. The poll, conducted in the first week of September, asked respondents whether they were in favour of New Zealand’s name being changed to Aotearoa. Only 28 per cent supported such a move.
As the market research company’s principal, David Farrar, pointed out:
“Media have reported at length how there is a petition to change the [nation’s] name, yet they have overlooked a scientific poll which ascertains whether or not this does have majority support. The poll found only 28 per cent support a name change to Aotearoa. Twice as many people are strongly opposed as strongly in favour.
“It found even Labour voters were slightly more opposed than supportive. The lowest level of support for a name change came in poor (high-deprivation) areas.”
It is obvious from the poll that the push to change the nation’s name isn’t a “grassroots” campaign but rather one driven by politicians, activists and the media. No doubt the news that the campaign has found such little popular support — especially among the poor — is highly inconvenient for them.
The petition launched by the Māori Party to change the nation’s name has gathered more than 60,000 signatures but the Curia poll makes it clear their push remains very much a minority interest.
Perhaps the most egregious omissions, however, occurred during Maori Language Week, which ran from 13-19 September. The programme aims to encourage wider use of te reo, with relevant stories featuring heavily in most media outlets.
Several times over the week readers would have seen references to Maori being beaten for speaking te reo at school.
On Stuff, the Human Rights Commission’s chief executive, Rebecca Elvy, was reported saying:
“State-sanctioned attempts to assimilate Māori into British culture through the removal of language have a long and documented history in Aotearoa. For more than 100 years Māori children were beaten and traumatised in Native Schools for speaking their reo.”
In The Guardian, former RNZ journalist Eva Corlett wrote:
“When Aotearoa was colonised, Europeans actively set out to erase Māori language and culture. Schoolchildren were beaten for speaking it.”
On RNZ, former Labour Māori Affairs Minister Dover Samuels related his experience of being caned in the 1940s for speaking te reo — and asked the Queen to send Prince William to apologise for this injustice.
It is extremely rare for any journalist or editor to put this unfortunate practice of corporal punishment into a historical context. The sad fact is that caning or being strapped was an extremely common form of punishment for school children of any race until at least the 1970s. Qualifying misdemeanours could be as minor as having dirty shoes, an untidy sports locker or talking in class. Thrashings were so commonplace they were unremarkable.
But a much more significant omission is the fact that well-intentioned Pakeha and Māori alike during the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th believed teaching Māori children English as a priority was the best way of helping them prosper. Banning any Māori being spoken in schools — and punishing those found speaking it — was an inevitable extension of such a policy.
And it was, in fact, Maori leaders who pushed most energetically for English to be the only medium of instruction in Native Schools.
In 1871, newly elected MP Karaitiana Takamoana pointed out in Parliament that missionaries had been teaching children
“… for many years, and the children are not educated. They have only taught them in the Māori language. The whole of the Māoris in this island request that the government should give instructions that the Māoris should be taught in English only.”
A petition by Wi Te Hakiro and 336 others presented to the House of Representatives in 1876 recommended:
”There should not be a word of Māori allowed to be spoken in the school, and the master, his wife and children should be persons altogether ignorant of the Māori language.“
There were more, including one by Renata Kawepo and 790 others. They asked that:
“The government should use every endeavour to have schools established throughout the colony, so that the Maori children may learn the English language, for by this they will be on the same footing as the Europeans, and will become acquainted with the means by which the Europeans have become great.”
Piri Ropata and 200 others also asked that Māori children be given the opportunity to be instructed only in English at school.
The great Sir Apirana Ngata — who served as Minister of Native Affairs, was ranked third in Cabinet and whose image graces our $50 note — was positively evangelical in his campaign in the 1920s and 1930s to have English given priority in Māori primary schools. He argued that proficiency in the English language was
“… the key with which to open the door to the sciences, the mechanised world, and many other callings”.
Furthermore, it was an approach endorsed by many Māori parents, who backed teachers disciplining their children for speaking te reo because they believed learning English was the path to success.
The essential countervailing fact that helps make sense of these campaigns is, of course, that te reo was widely spoken in homes and marae, where Ngata and other leaders believed it would continue to prosper. In short: Māori at home; English at school.
The later mass migration of Māori to the cities and towns destroyed the balance between home, marae and school but it is impossible to understand the practice of punishing Māori children for speaking te reo without acknowledging the determined push by Māori leaders for English to be given primacy in schools.
Journalists and editors may be ignorant of these historical facts or simply prefer not to mention them, but neither explanation reflects well on their professionalism or their credibility.
- Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom This article was first posted by the Democracy Project.